September 3, 2022
If you have been feeling stressed out lately and think you may be on the verge of burnout, look out for these warning signs. Below, we’ll talk about what burnout is and the strategies you can use to reduce stress and avoid overwhelming relapses.
Burnout is a term that is most often used to describe work-related stress, but it can actually result from many kinds of life stressors. In this article, we will be talking about burnout in a more general sense.
Burnout is a state of exhaustion caused by excessive, overwhelming, or prolonged stress. But it’s more complex than what the word “exhaustion” can fully communicate. Burnout can affect the whole person and it can apply to many areas of life. It commonly encompasses well-being on emotional, mental, and physical levels.
The effects of burnout do not appear overnight. They result from a person’s normal reserves slowly being worn down over time. No one is immune to burnout. Anyone who is continually exposed to high levels of stress, has too many responsibilities, or spends too many hours on challenging tasks can experience it.
To make matters worse, overwork and overachievement are often praised lavishly. The society we live in seems to value productivity over purpose, and that has a dangerous allure. We want to feel (or appear) successful, important, and needed. And so the temptation to work harder and give tirelessly takes hold. But overcommitment should not be worn as a badge of honor, and running on fumes is not admirable.
Stress and burnout can creep in regardless of our motives. Even when we are purpose driven, acting from a place of love, or truly find satisfaction in the pursuit of accomplishment – things can easily go overboard.
You may not realize you are experiencing burnout until you have exhausted yourself. Some people prefer to stay busy and have trouble recognizing when they are doing too much. Others may feel pressured by work or home environments and believe slowing down is not an option. But pushing on and on to the point of burnout is counterproductive.
There are several clues you can look for to determine whether you might be experiencing burnout. Burnout is frequently characterized by exhaustion (as explained above), apathy and cynicism, and feelings of personal ineffectiveness. These indications are not necessarily present in everyone who experiences burnout, or some signs may present more dominantly than others.
The signs of burnout can overlap with symptoms of other health conditions or disorders. Burnout is not the same as depression, but left untreated, chronic burnout may be a factor that contributes to the development of depression or anxiety.
The causes of burnout are more likely to be pinpointed by looking at recent conditions a person has been exposed to. Working more hours due to a looming deadline, pushing through a stressful life event, or suddenly experiencing snowballing responsibilities with limited access to resources are all examples of scenarios that could lead to burnout.
The symptoms of burnout are usually temporary and tend to dissipate after removing stressors, taking longer breaks and refocusing on enjoyable activities.
Conversely, depression may come on without a specific trigger. It doesn’t always have a cause. It’s also possible for depressive symptoms to linger even when circumstances change, or environments improve.
There are actions you can take to reduce stress and fight burnout, but depression typically requires professional treatment. Since it can be difficult to attribute the source of individual symptoms, it’s important to seek help if you experience ongoing or new symptoms that cause you distress.
All this is to say that we should not self-diagnose. We should also not ignore stress or signs of burnout with the assumption that it’s “not that bad.” What you are experiencing is valid, and help is available no matter what you are facing.
To overcome stress, self-care needs to become a priority. Unfortunately, self-care is often dismissed as non-essential. Self-care might seem cliché since it’s been freely applied – like a band-aid covered in children’s cartoon characters – as a purported solution to every mental health concern you can think of.
But it really CAN make a difference as a preventative practice. Done correctly, self-care can stop stress from accumulating to the point of burnout (or worse).
Whether the band-aid sticks or not depends on how it’s applied. When it comes to reducing stress, a one-off meditation session or random spa day will probably not make a big enough impact over the long run. Similarly, taking a week-long vacation after a marathon six months of overwork might take the edge off that accumulated stress, but it does not guarantee complete relief.
We are best served by balancing exposure to stress with ample opportunities to retreat. It’s essential to choose self-care activities you enjoy and to integrate them as regular habits in your day-to-day life. Do those things that help your mind, body, and spirit relax and recuperate. Get regular exercise, explore new hobbies, read some books, practice mindfulness – whatever nourishes you.
Do you have difficulty saying no? Stress escalates quickly when we take on too much. Having (and sticking to) boundaries can counteract this problem.
Boundaries are important because they preserve our health and well-being. They help us disconnect, rest, and recuperate more fully. When our boundaries are respected and honored, we feel valued and safe.
But if you are used to making yourself accessible around the clock it might take some extra thinking and planning ahead to establish new boundaries.
Boundaries can be created by making changes to your routine. Take a look at your schedule and current obligations. Break things down. What is your top priority? Are there things you can drop or hold off on until later? Try to find ways to shift and share responsibilities where you can.
Since boundaries involve how we relate to other people, communication is a very important part of this process. Setting boundaries is about being honest and fair with others while staying true to your needs and sensitive to your limitations.
Seeing a therapist is a great step to take if you think you might be experiencing burnout. Your therapist can give you a safe space to talk, help you come up with strategies to manage what is going on in your life, and help you find a path back towards a place of equilibrium.
Seeing a therapist does not have to be left as a last resort. Left unchecked, stress and burnout can affect your relationships with others. Stress can also make it harder to regulate your emotions. Built-up stress may lead to outbursts, breakdowns, or panic attacks.
Therapists are well-equipped to help spot any issues you may be experiencing from excess stress. They can help you develop skills to improve the way you process what’s going on and how you respond to people and situations in your daily life.
Using strategies to reduce and overcome stress can go a long way to help you avoid burnout in the first place. But if you are currently experiencing symptoms of burnout, know that no matter how overwhelming things feel right now recovery is possible.
Stress is a part of life, but burnout doesn’t have to be. Managing burnout is possible once you begin to recognize its signs and symptoms. Take time to assess the amount of stress in your life and start to make a plan to reduce it. Keeping a journal might be useful for this purpose.
Recognize that you cannot control or solve everything, there are only so many hours in a day, and there are only so many things you can reasonably do on your own. No matter how you try to argue it, you will always need time for yourself, and you will always need other people.
Take breaks and take care of yourself. Set boundaries, communicate them, and then stick to them (guard them!). Talk to friends and loved ones, taking extra time to connect with people in your community who can understand what you are going through.
If you are at a loss for how to begin having these conversations, therapy is a great avenue to consider. Instead of internalizing emotions and stress, you can learn ways to express yourself constructively and reduce the amount of stress you are carrying.
Recovery from burnout has ups and downs. “Relapses” are normal – it takes time and practice to reel things in, adjust your habits, and reintegrate into life in a way that is more balanced and sustainable.
Somewhere along the line, try to get to know and understand yourself. Figure out how you identify with yourself, understand your wants and needs, and get deep into the things that make you tick. You will face stress again, but awareness and acceptance of yourself can help you make choices that will support you better in the future.
Burnout can feel insurmountable. But being overwhelmed is a signal, not a sentence. By understanding the symptoms and adopting stress-reduction strategies, you can not only recover, but find new ways to reduce the recurrence of burnout.
Increasing your overall wellness and resilience is likely to be the best way to prevent burnout and reduce stress. This is something to work towards over time. However you are feeling today, let your experience be a turning point on your path to a healthier and happier life. ⯁
Former Director of Marketing and Communications at Andrews & Associates Counseling.